Out & About: Conquering Van Pelt

Surely you know where the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library is, even if you haven’t been inside. The massive brick building takes up more than a block along Walnut Street (between 34th and 36th), and faces College Green, the very heart of campus. Claes Oldenberg’s “Split Button,” one of the most recognizable sculptures on campus, sits right in front of the steps.

Despite its central location, Van Pelt-Dietrich can seem a bit, well, intimidating, to the average staffer. It’s a massive place, because it serves as the main building for Penn’s social science and humanities collections, rare books and manuscripts, and houses several study centers, seminar rooms and two computer labs. It’s so big, there’s even a library within the library: Wharton’s Lippincott Library.

Also, if you’re anything like me, it may have been a while since you stepped foot inside an academic library (how many years has it been since college?). But Van Pelt-Dietrich isn’t just for those researching a specific topic; it really has something for everyone and is accessible to all Penn employees.

Granted, you need a PennCard to get through the turnstile, but once inside you can use that trusty card to check out books, videos and DVDs, or simply grab a comfy chair on the first floor that faces College Green, pick up your favorite newspaper and relax.

Getting started

Since Van Pelt-Dietrich is such a big building, the web site (www.library.upenn.edu/vanpelt/) is a great place to begin your visit. If you know what book or video you’re looking for, you can search for it in the database (called the Franklin Online Catalog) from the comfort of your own computer. Or, wait until you’re inside the library and snag one of the computers located within the six-story building to search online. Then, check the maps near the elevators (and inside the elevators) to find your floor. Literature and fiction fans will want to head for the third floor, while those interested in American political culture will find what they need on the fourth.

If you’re looking for something recent and popular, check out the small bookcases filled with New York Times bestsellers, conveniently located on the first floor, on the wall opposite the elevators. New books are also located on the first floor at the base of the staircase. Of course, Van Pelt-Dietrich also has a selection of periodicals and daily newspapers—from the Boston Globe to the Jerusalem Post—also located on the first floor. .

Finding a quiet nook

There are plenty of terrific reading rooms and alcoves within the library. Some are public and less quiet—such as the row of white rocking chairs overlooking College Green—while others are tucked within the recesses of the library.

One such haven is the modest children’s section, located in an alcove on the second floor. While there may be some foot traffic, as it’s on the way to the Lippincott Library, during off-peak hours it’s a quiet place to curl up with a book.

The Dietrich Reading Room on the first floor is also a peaceful spot. The Class of 1967 Lounge, located in front of the elevators on the second floor is less serene—it’s a designated cell phone area open to the first floor below—but it has plush chairs and an Oriental rug in the sitting area, making for a comfy space to make a quick call.

While the third, fourth and fifth floors are devoted to stacks and stacks of books, study lounges and carrels, computer labs and seminar rooms, the sixth floor is worth a stop.

As you step off the elevator, beautiful carved dark woodwork lines the wall in front of you, which is actually Penn’s original library, from the Victorian home of Charles Henry Lea. The adjacent Rosenwald Exhibition Gallery is also paneled with dark woodwork, taken from a 15th-century house in Chester, England. The gallery houses the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the T. Edward Ross Reading Room.

Before you leave—after checking out your books or DVDs—stop by Mark’s Café, located on the ground floor, and take the time to sip your coffee in the adjacent Rosengarten Reserve/Quiet Study Area. Finally, don’t be offended when the guard asks to check your bag on your way out. It’s just library policy.

Originally published on February 24, 2005